Laura Conway on Web Series: Production Day

EDITOR’S NOTE: Here it is. The sixth and – oh no! – final chapter in Laura’s series on the making of her very, very, very popular – over 3 million views – interweb series hit The Vamps Next Door.

Relax, Kid, You’re Not Making Star Wars
by Laura Conway

I try to be positive, but having a big imagination works both ways. Try to imagine the worst possible thing that can go wrong during your production. For me, that involves death, so if nobody dies, it was a great shoot. And when it’s over, you can happily say that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. You’re not making Star Wars here, so focus on the positives of the experience or you’ll miss all the fun.

Some practical things to do in preparation for shoot day: Set up the house as much as possible the night before. Have printed copies of the script and the call sheet. Print out the lunch menu and take orders in the morning. Have extra batteries, duct tape and blue painter’s tape (the kind that doesn’t stick to wood floors), have an opaque tarp in case you need to block out light from windows.

Have some wardrobe tape ready in case an actress has to tape her dress to prevent wardrobe malfunction, have a slate ready with dry erase markers and an eraser, designate a bathroom, including free counter space, for the makeup person to set up (they take up way more space than you would think), know which area of the house you won’t be shooting in and use it as a staging area for equipment, have all the props ready to go and a designated changing room for the actors. And make sure there’s plenty of coffee, water, snacks, etc.

One recommendation I have is to “check the gate” after each scene. That means watch the footage you just shot before moving on to the next scene to make sure it looks good… Remember the homeless guy, who works for food, that you picked up and put on camera 3? Make sure his shots are in focus. Vamps Director, Phil, never checks the gate, but I’m the editor and I can tell you that out of focus shots can’t be fixed well in editing… See what you can see:

When I showed up for our very first Vamps Next Door shoot, I didn’t know anything about anything. Now I know some stuff, but nothing can really prepare you for a low budget shoot except to expect the unexpected. Being obsessively organized helps a lot. Until it doesn’t…

Some of the unexpected things I’ve had happen while shooting:

My neighbor decides it’s cut down a tree day

There’s a dog in the back room whining (and it’s not my dog)

Fangs just fall out of the actress’s mouth

An actor shows up for pick up shots with a new beard and new hair color

The fake pee device supposed to wet the actor’s pants just makes a puddle on the floor

The Fire Marshall shows up and says we’re not allowed to really smoke from the bong

The cat won’t react when the script clearly says CAT REACTS

The homeowner is having a mental breakdown, tears included, over all the people in her house

And my personal favorite…The actress’s nipple is showing through her bra and we don’t notice until after we’ve shot it (Editing that nipple out was a bitch… see if you can see it at 4:45…

Every time I finish editing and posting a new Vamps episode, I say, “I’m never doing this again.”

But I do. Because I’ve also had some amazingly cool moments while shooting, like when actors nail my favorite lines, the way good lighting makes an actress’s skin look on camera, when I frame a beautiful exterior shot and it’s perfect, when the fake vomit looks real, when a joke line I wrote makes everyone laugh. And best of all when I look over at all the brilliant, creative people I work with.

So that’s my story about my strange kind of hobby, writing and producing web series. Now it’s your turn to make one!

Read Chapter 1 HERE

Read Chapter 2 HERE

Read Chapter 3 HERE

Read Chapter 4 HERE

Read Chapter 5 HERE

Laura Conway is the writer and producer of The Vamps Next Door web series, directed by Phil Ramuno. Subscribe to the Vamps’ YouTube channel to get notifications about new episodes.

Laura Conway on Web Series: Finding and Working with a Director

EDITOR’S NOTE: Here it is. The third chapter in Laura’s series on the making of her very, very, very popular – over 3 million views – interweb series hit The Vamps Next Door.

Man Up, Kid Cause This is Gonna Hurt…So Good
by Laura Conway

Deciding to make your script into a web series means it’s no longer just about you, it’s about a collaboration with others. If you’re controlling and obsessive over your writing like I am, let me warn you that the first time is going to hurt. (but no pain, no gain)

Before any casting is done, find a director because directors need to be a part of the casting process. Unless you’ve got experience directing, I don’t think you should direct your own episode. It’s harder than it looks.

On The Vamps Next Door, I was lucky to work with veteran sitcom director, Phil Ramuno. I didn’t have to find him and I did not hire him, we already knew each other and we became co-creators. We find the same things funny so that usually works out great.

Phil is as close to a mentor as I’ve ever had. Thanks to Phil, I learned how to stage a scene, frame a shot, position the cameras, give actors notes, and the basics of 3 camera sitcom. If you’re making a comedy, check out Phil’s book, The New Sitcom Career Book

I’m going to use a different web series, AGELESS, as an example here, because for that web series, I had to actually go out and find a director to hire. There are new directors, student directors and commercial directors, who are willing to work on low budget projects.

I found director Montana Mann just by Google searching new female directors. I emailed her about AGELESS, explained the budget and attached the script. Since it’s a low budget job for them, it’s best to attach a script (that they will love) at the same time you’re disclosing the not so great pay.

It’s important to hire a director who gets your vision. Montana thought the script was hilarious and she also had a vision that I really liked. Here comes the hard lesson about establishing a director-writer relationship for your web series production.

It’s not just a director-writer relationship, it’s also a director-producer relationship. It’s your money and your project, but at the same time, the director also has a vision. Agree in advance on what the combined vision is and then it’s the director’s job to make that vision happen.

It’s tricky as fuck and I don’t know what else to say except watch and learn. I studied how these directors work and next time I’m going to try directing myself…

It’s important to have a pre-production meeting with the director. Go over the script and be sure to participate in creating the shot list so you can work out any conflicts in advance. During this meeting, be the producer first, writer second. This meeting is your chance to explain your vision to the director and any specific, must have shots you want before production day.

Once the camera’s rolling, it’s the director’s set and the director’s choices. That drives the writer in me crazy, but on shoot day, that ship has sailed because stopping production to add a new shot, make a change or have a disagreement adds time and money that a low budget production does not have.

It was day four of AGELESS production when I had a mental breakdown.

I hadn’t listened to more experienced people who told me I wrote too much to shoot in one day. Why? Because I couldn’t bear to cut anything from my precious script. Around 2pm, the director and I realized there was no way she was going to make her day, meaning there wasn’t enough time left to shoot everything on the shot list.

She had no choice but to make the call to cut part of a scene.

My favorite part, by the way.

I was devastated and was sure that without that scene, the episode was going to die. It was hard, but I did the only thing I could do. I trusted Montana to do her job and ran off to cry in the restroom. What she cut was a fight scene between two gangs of elderly people in a nursing home where they clobber each other with canes, walkers, prosthetic limbs, etc. Funny stuff.

Sure, she was right, and the episode played just fine without it. But I still miss that fight scene. See if you miss it too by clicking on the video at the top of this page.

Hard Way Lesson #3: If I had listened and rewritten the script into something shorter before we shot OR budgeted more time for what I had written, I might have been able to save that scene. It’s better to control the outcome in advance than have a breakdown when it’s too late.

Now I’m telling you what I wish someone had told me… Remember you’re the producer. Unless you’re co-creators, the director works with you as the writer, AND also for you as the producer. Listen to the people who know more than you do but don’t get insecure about what you want. You don’t always have to agree or follow their advice, but if it’s your first time doing this, they could be right. It’s that whole “wisdom to know the difference” shit… and I still don’t always get it.

Working with directors was a little stressful and out of my comfort zone, but I’m grateful for the chance to study two talented directors at work. I learned a lot from them.

Stay tuned for the next chapter on my favorite thing ever… Casting.

Read Chapter 1 HERE

Read Chapter 2 HERE

Laura Conway is the writer and producer of The Vamps Next Door web series, directed by Phil Ramuno. Subscribe to the Vamps’ YouTube channel to get notifications about new episodes.